When Oh Dae-su (Min-Sik Choi) is kidnapped he wakes up in a dingy hotel room with only a television. As he watches the news he hears that his wife has been brutally murdered and he has been framed. Oh Dae-su spends 15 years locked up in the room. Upon his release, he sets out to find who imprisoned him and why.

1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 17 Jul 2017 - 12:02 PM

The Korean film industry is currently booming, one of the few places in the world that local or indigenous films outperform Hollywood at the box office. Oldboy is part of this renaissance, it is the second in Korean director Chan-wook Park's trilogy of revenge thrillers, after Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002) and the upcoming, provisionally titled Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. So how's this for a movie set up?

One night ordinary salary-man Oh Dae-Su (Min-Sik Choi) gets drunk and disorderly on his way home for his young daughter's birthday, and gets locked up. After his best mate bails him out of jail Oh Dae-Su simply up and vanishes. Coming to, Dae-Su realises he's been kidnapped. He dwells in motel hell for fifteen years, and as abruptly as he was taken, one day he is released. Understandably Dae-Su only has revenge on his mind and sets about trying to track down his kidnapper(s) and their motives. It's a journey that takes him into the heart of darkness and a few cultural taboos to boot.

Actor Choi Min-Sik goes through a dramatic physical transformation in this demanding lead role, renovating his body-shape from that of flabby 'ordinary guy' to highly-tuned/toned killer, ready for action. His hair(!) also shifts over the course of the story, reflecting Dae-Su's highly-charged emotional state, going from slicked down conservative to a kind of deranged Edward Scissorhands. As director Chanwook says, "As soon as I saw (Chi Min-Sik's hair design) I knew it was perfect: the rest of the film came from that haircut."

Oldboy is magnificent. It is poetic, reflective, full of surprises, visceral and, a superbly orchestrated revenge movie. It is also unique especially when it comes to the action, hardly a Hong Kong chop-socky fest, and not as operatic as Zhang Yimou's recent Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Oldboy's combat is more hard-edged and painterly, playing out almost in fixed shots. And like many Korean films, Oldboy been accused of ultra-violence by Western critics, but this is a furphy. Yes it is at times a challenge to watch but I dare you to look away. Chan-wook Park is too shrewd to use violence simply as spectacle, it means something here, after all we're watching a serious Greek tragedy play out.

This was the motivation behind Chan-wook Park's trilogy, to seriously explore revenge, the most dramatic subject in the world. I can see why Quentin Tarantino's jury awarded Oldboy the Grand Prize at Cannes last year. It's sure to be the next Asian action film he steals from.